The Atchafalaya River Basin: History and Ecology of an American Wetland

The Atchafalaya River Basin: History and Ecology of an American Wetland

The Atchafalaya River Basin: History and Ecology of an American Wetland

The Atchafalaya River Basin: History and Ecology of an American Wetland


In this comprehensive, one-volume reference, Nature Conservancy scientist Bryan P. Piazza poses five key questions:

—What is the Atchafalaya River Basin?
—Why is it important?
—How have its hydrology and natural habitats been managed?
—What is its current state?
—How do we ensure its survival?

For more than five centuries, the Atchafalaya River Basin has captured the flow of the Mississippi River, becoming its main distributary as it reaches the Gulf of Mexico in south Louisiana. This dynamic environment, comprising almost a million acres of the lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley and Mississippi River Deltaic Plain, is perhaps best known for its expansive swamp environments dominated by baldcypress, water tupelo, and alligators. But the Atchafalaya River Basin contains a wide range of habitats and one of the highest levels of biodiversity on the North American continent.

Piazza has compiled and synthesized the body of scientific knowledge for the Atchafalaya River Basin, documenting the ecological state of the basin and providing a baseline of understanding. His research provides a crucial resource for future planning. He evaluates some common themes that have emerged from the research and identifies important scientific questions that remain unexplored.

BRYAN P. PIAZZA is director of freshwater and marine science at The Nature Conservancy, Louisiana, based in Baton Rouge, where he leads the applied science program in support of conservation projects across the Gulf states. He also serves as a consultant, providing technical and scientific advice on a range of environmental damage, restoration, and compliance issues.


I still remember receiving that telephone call. I was working up at Delta Waterfowl Research Station in the summer of 1993. I had just graduated from college at the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point; a new wildlife biologist on the loose, wanting to further my education in Louisiana’s vast coastal wetlands. The call was news that I had been accepted into the wildlife program at LSU to pursue my master’s degree, and came with a simple question: would I like to live on the Atchafalaya River Delta and study colonial wading birds? After nearly jumping out of my skin with excitement, I calmly accepted, loaded my Ford Ranger, and within days, I was on the road, pointed south, about to begin my journey into one of the largest wetlands in the world.

I immediately fell in love with the Atchafalaya and Louisiana’s wetlands and culture. Whether I was helping my buddies on their research projects in the Basin, harvesting crawfish, hunting and fishing, or pursuing my own research, I was never far from the marsh or swamp. And since that time, I have continued to pursue a deeper knowledge of wetlands and have worked to conserve and restore them. My research has taken me into countless areas of the coast, but wherever I was, the Atchafalaya was not far from my thoughts (or my muddy boots). So, when the opportunity arose to write this book, I jumped at the chance.

This book tells the story of the Atchafalaya River Basin through the lens of science. When I was hired at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), we were just beginning our work in the Atchafalaya Basin. Our goal is to help conserve and restore this magnificent landscape so that it can continue to sustain biodiversity and provide livelihoods and enjoyment for generations to come. My first task was to assess the current ecological state of the Atchafalaya River Basin. I quickly realized that, while there were a multitude of good scientific studies that had been done in this great landscape, nobody had ever synthesized them into a comprehensive volume to tell its story from a scientific perspective. So, that’s what I did, and this book is the result.

This book reviews hundreds of studies done in the Atchafalaya River Basin across multiple ecological disciplines—geology, hydrology, forestry, fisheries, wildlife science, social science, and economics. I did not review cultural studies, as a number of good books already exist on the Cajun culture and its close ties to the Atchafalaya Basin.

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